Life and death in the house of hope

Updated: 2016-05-17 08:04

By Zhao Xu(China Daily)

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Life and death in the house of hope

Children with leukemia play at Wujianong in Hefei, the capital of Anhui province. Apart from the face masks they wear, there are few other indications of the children's lifethreatening illnesses. Feng Yongbin / China Daily

A ramshackle building in the backstreets of the capital of Anhui province is a home for some of China's sickest children. Zhao Xu reports from Hefei.

Standing solitarily in the corner of an open alleyway corridor, amid empty cupboards and discarded mineral water bottles, is a children's tricycle. The electric-blue bike added a heart-lifting jolt of color to a place otherwise shrouded in drabness. While the wheels had clearly been collecting dust for a long time, a small wooden plank where the seat once was, fastened by plastic string indicated that bike was still in active use.

"Every child I know that has lived on this floor has ridden on this bike at one time or another," Li Defang said. "Chemotherapy gave them feeble legs, so they had no choice but to ride around on this little dirty bike that always seems to be about to crumble within the next minute."

The children all have the same illness - leukemia. About 2 million children in China have the disease, and the number is estimated to be rising by 20,000 cases a year, according to a recent report by China Newsweek.

For many families in Anhui province, Wujianong, or Wujia Lane, in Hefei, the capital of the eastern province, is an unofficial refuge. Some of the children have lived there for so long that it has almost become their second home.

Yet for both residents and visitors - adventurers really, because the place feels like a colony - the name is a little misleading because rather than a single lane, the area is composed of a handful of backstreets, lined by old-style two or three-story courtyards. Tucked inside are dark little rooms - the structure allows little light in - resembling honeycombs in a giant beehive. These days, almost all the rooms have been rented out to migrant-worker families and families with a child with leukemia, the overwhelming majority come from the province.

Zhao Jing, Li's 4-year-old granddaughter, is one of them. "We came here in September 2014, not long after the diagnosis. We chose to live here because it's just a few steps away from the Anhui Provincial Children's Hospital, where my granddaughter had chemotherapy. But most important, it's cheap here," Li said. An 8-square-meter room costs about 350 yuan ($54) a month, compared with two-bedroom apartments in the vicinity that cost 1,500 yuan.

The fact that this messy and dilapidated corner 15 minutes' drive from the city center has, so far, escaped demolition is a miracle in itself. A miracle is what every family living here with a sick child is hoping for.

"But there will be no miracle without money," Li said.

Tough decisions

Li Guoping knows all about that. Having spent two and half years in Wujianong, he has seen many deaths - and the pain leading up to them. He is determined that his grandson, Li Ao, will not suffer in the same way.

Last year, the 10-year-old had a stem cell transplant. So far, apart from one post-transplant infection, he is on the road to recovery, but things have been tough for the family.

"We were running out of money while Li Ao was staying in the transplant room. I've no idea how he got to know about that, but one day, when my wife went to see the boy, he told her, 'Please don't waste money on me any more'," Li Guoping recalled. "A few days after that, he tired to drink a bottle of disinfectant while his nurse was away for a few minutes."

Luckily, Li Ao was quickly discovered and no serious damage resulted, but what he will probably never know is that at the same time he was trying to end his young life, his grandmother and his mother, who had given birth to a baby girl barely seven months before, were begging for money in a nearby street.

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